WASHINGTON The White House on Wednesday tried to ratchet up pressure on the Republican-led Senate to allow a vote on President Barack Obama's choice to fill the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
The Democratic president has argued that the Senate has a constitutional duty to consider his impending choice for the lifetime post to replace Scalia.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest, however, was put on the defensive over Obama's actions a decade ago as a member of the Senate when he tried to block the nomination put forward by his predecessor in the White House, Republican George W. Bush, of conservative Samuel Alito to the nation's highest court.
As a first-term senator from Illinois, Obama tried to block Alito's nomination, using a procedural manoeuvre called a filibuster. Alito, a conservative, was confirmed anyway.
"Some Democrats engaged in a process of throwing sand in the gears of the confirmation process. And that's an approach that the president regrets," White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.
Earnest portrayed Obama's vote to try to block Alito as "symbolic" and sought to contrast it to "Republicans' reflexive opposition" to Obama nominating a justice to a post on the court to replace Scalia.
Obama's nominee could change the balance of power on the court. The death of the stalwart conservative Scalia leaves the court with four conservative justices and four liberals.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said shortly after Scalia's death that the seat should remain vacant until Obama's successor takes office in January so voters can have a say on the selection when they cast ballots in the Nov. 8 presidential election. The Senate must confirm any Supreme Court nominee.
McConnell spokesman Don Stewart said the past filibuster that Obama joined undercuts the White House's constitutional argument given that Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State John Kerry and Senate Democratic leaders supported the effort to block Alito.
Obama is moving ahead with the "rigorous process" of finding a nominee, Earnest said, but he declined to say whether any candidates had been interviewed.
The White House has been in touch with the offices of "multiple" senators of both parties about the court vacancy, Earnest said. He would not say whether Attorney General Loretta Lynch was on Obama's list of potential nominees.
Earnest declined to rule out that Obama would make a recess appointment: naming someone to the job on a temporary basis while the Senate is on a recess, bypassing the Senate's confirmation process. Instead, he said Obama expects the Senate to give the nominee a fair hearing and timely vote.
Earnest said Obama and first lady Michelle Obama will pay their respects to Scalia on Friday when the late justice's body lies in repose at the Supreme Court building. Earnest said Obama will not go to Scalia's funeral Mass on Saturday in Washington but that Vice President Joe Biden will attend.
The remaining eight justices have cancelled a meeting set for Friday to discuss action on future cases but are due to hear oral arguments as scheduled next week in pending cases.
Liberal groups including MoveOn.org and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee said in a conference call with reporters they will mount a campaign to prod Republican senators to allow hearings and a vote on Obama's nominee.
They said they already have gathered some 500,000 petition signatures opposing McConnell's stance. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, who chairs the Judiciary Committee that considers high court nominees, has not ruled out holding hearings although he has offered mixed messages about how to proceed.
"Grassroots voices are going to be the key to making Senator McConnell back off," Senator Chuck Schumer, a member of the Senate Democratic leadership, told reporters.
(Additional reporting Roberta Rampton, Doina Chiacu and Megan Cassella)
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